Allo is almost “Slack For Friends”. But it will fail

MAY 20TH, 2016 — POST 137

Part of me wishes I could use Slack for all my messaging. The work-oriented chat platform feels leaps and bounds ahead of peer-to-peer social messaging apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Hangouts, and Apple’s native Messages. Most attractive to me, Slack is receptive to the spindly tendrils of other services — like Trello, Google Drive, and YouTube — through its native handling of links and integrations. Chat is invariably about something, and with those somethings increasingly located online, Slack is built to present them appropriately within its chat client so users aren’t forever hopping between apps. Slack, of all the dedicated messaging platforms, moves furthest away from the messaging paradigm inherited from SMS.

SMS notably has one killer feature: identification. Whilst email has become the dominant means of identification, having a single mobile number serve as a means of identification has proved its enduring benefits. Specifically, problems of logging in and out evaporate when a service is pegged to what for most people is their unique identifier. Right now, I have half a dozen Google accounts, and three email accounts served from my own websites. As I’m regularly having to make use both of my main personal Google account and my work’s Google account, both for Hangouts and Drive, I’m consistently missing messages from on or the other when I’m not signed in. The handling of multiple accounts still proves to be a growing thorn in Google’s side, which is perhaps why the new messaging app they announced at this week’s I/O keynote can run without a Google account at all.

Called Allo, Google’s new messaging app is the first in this category to be released since Facebook’s declarative statement that bots, an integral part of Slack, will be inseparable from social messaging in the future. As such, much like “@slackbot” can be used to call for (albeit limited automated assistance) within Slack, “@google” is being pitched as Allo’s killer feature. Essentially, Google is opening its specific window to the web inside of every peer-to-peer conversation. Allo is expected to be released “in the summer” so we won’t know until then specifically how it will handle things like YouTube links or other not-really-text information but what we’ve seen is promising in this regard. But in 2016, just making a good chat app isn’t really enough, even for a company with the clout of Google. If there’s one thing that defines the capacity for success in a chat app, it’s the salience of its user base. Basically, is everyone I want to talk to there?

Apple’s app ecosystem sets up trenches which are, to varying degrees, difficult to climb out of. For one, Ulysses, the app I’ve written every one of these pieces in, is a writing app for iOS and OS X for which there is no close Android/Windows equivalent. Highland, the OS X screenwriting software, too keeps me deep within the trenches of Apple’s ecosystem. However, arguably the deepest of these trenches is Apple’s Messages, formerly known as iMessage. The default messaging app for all of Apple’s devices, this particular trench is dug deep by its opacity. Switching between SMS and internet-carried messages is a largely inscrutable process which can lead to complications such as users being dropped from group chats or simply missing messages when they’re outside reach of an internet connection. However, its opacity, in the best cases summated by the quip “It just works”, makes it the most compelling option for most Apple users. Similarly deep trenches are dug within friend groups around certain apps, the most obvious of which is Facebook Messenger, a service that everyone in my network boarded by default in the late 2000s. WhatsApp, WeChat, Line, and even Google’s own Hangouts are all fine apps that have a pool of users that necessitate any migration be a mass-migration.

It’s almost inconsequential how good Allo turns out to be. Even if it were as compelling as Slack in the opinion of a single user, it is unlikely to see much penetration without literally every single person being “brought into the light” of good product design. As much as social chat apps might be consistently spoken of as the new battleground, specifically because the needs of developing markets invariably start with chat, it might just be that the decks are already stacked.

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